ATLANTIC CITY – Other girls will win state titles in the future, but only one group will be the first.

History was made on Saturday night inside Boardwalk Hall during the inaugural NJSIAA Girls Wrestling State Tournament as three Shore Conference girls won state titles, entering the history book among a group of the first 10 girls wrestling state champions in New Jersey history.

Manasquan senior Bella Serrano won the 111-pound title, Raritan freshman Cristine Gavasheli won the 118-pound championship and Manalapan sophomore Jesse Johnson captured the 136-pound title to lead a group of 14 Shore Conference girls in the tournament.

03/02/2019 - NJSIAA State Finals - Shore Conference Wrestlers
Photo by Richard O'Donnell.

“When I was in my semifinal match I told myself I was born to do this; I was born to be out here,” Serrano said.

When the news broke that New Jersey was going to add girls wrestling as a varsity sport, complete with its own state tournament, it was as if the wrestling gods had finally answered Serrano’s prayers.

“I was actually on my way back home from practice and my friend sent me a text message saying you’re going to be the first state champ,” Serrano said. “It was about time. I waited too long.”

Serrano has been a four-year varsity starter for Manasquan, competing against mostly boys and only a handful of girls. She’s wrestled since fifth grade, hoping one day the time would come for her to shine. That moment came on Saturday night under the bright lights.

At the famous arena by the beach that has been the longtime home of the boys wrestling state tournament, Serrano made history by defeating West Orange’s Daniela Tacuri, 6-4 in sudden victory, to become the first girls state champion from the Shore Conference and also the first Manasquan wrestler – male or female – to win a state championship.

“I can’t even describe it, it’s so awesome,” Serrano said.

Serrano had to rally to win gold, clawing back from a 3-0 deficit in the second period. After a scoreless first period, Tacuri escaped and then scored a takedown to build her lead. Serrano escaped near the end of the second period and then chose defense to start the third. Tacuri rode her for nearly 90 seconds in the third period before Serrano escaped with 37 seconds left, trimming her deficit to 3-2. She then took Tacuri down near the edge of the circle to take a 4-3 lead with 15 seconds left. Tacuri, however, was able to get to her feet and earn an escape point just as the buzzer was sounding.

“I thought I had it, to be honest, but then (the referee) said overtime and it was like, ‘oh no’,” Serrano said.

Undeterred, Serrano pressed forward on Tacuri, getting in on a shot and finishing off the historic state-championship clinching takedown with 24 seconds left in sudden victory.

“I just wanted that win so bad,” Serrano said. “I needed that takedown and I got it.”

That moment was years in the making for Serrano. She’s worked tirelessly at her craft and become a sponge for wrestling knowledge wherever she could attain it.

“I’ve been wrestling since I was in fifth grade; I watch college wrestling, I watch Olympic wrestling, I watch high school wrestling,” Serrano said. “Some of the guys here, I watch how they wrestle and I just learn from each and every match.”

Serrano said she received some encouragement from current and past teammates, but she also had her share of naysayers. This state championship was for them, too.

“There’s a bunch of guys on my team who said I wasn’t going to do it,” Serrano said. “I’m just going to laugh in their faces and say, ‘I did it!’.”

Another Shore Conference girl with wrestling experience is Johnson, who entered the season as a USA Wrestling Freestyle All-American. Johnson won by fall over Monroe’s Veronica Whitacre at the 1:39 mark of the first period to bring home the NJSIAA 136-pound state title and reach a goal she set at the beginning of the season.

“Honestly, I just manifested this all year,” Johnson said. “I always believe in myself and the work I’ve done all these years so I thought this moment would happen.”

Johnson entered the South Region tournament as the 136-pound favorite but was pinned by Manasquan’s America Garay in the semifinals. She wrestled back for third to clinch a state tournament berth, and then in the state semifinals she got her revenge by pinning Garay in 2:18 to reach the state championship match.

“It wasn’t an easy ride and I definitely had to work for it,” Johnson said. “I definitely just wanted to prove I was better than all these girls in my weight class.”

Johnson’s parents are both Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners and she has trained in the martial art since a young age. She began wrestling in seventh grade and has competed in various tournaments at the state and national level. She figured that would be the extent of her wrestling exposure aside from some potential junior varsity wrestling matches on the boys team. Then, the state announced girls wrestling as a varsity sport.

“It was very exciting, I never knew it would happen while I was still in high school,” Johnson said. “And being a sophomore it’s great to know I have more years to come.”

There were several girls wrestlers with years of experience who competed in the state tournament, but there were also plenty more who decided only this year to give the sport a try. Gavasheli falls into that group, but you wouldn’t know it by the way she dominated the region and state tournaments.

A first-year wrestler, Gavasheli pinned her way through the region and state tournaments to capture the NJSIAA 118-pound state championship. In the second period of the championship match, Gavasheli put Notre Dame’s Angelina Romero to her back and finished her off with the fall at the 2:31 mark. She is the first Raritan wrestler, male or female, to win a wrestling state championship.

“It’s my first year and I had no idea I’d be here,” Gavasheli said. “To be the first, it means the world to me. It feels really amazing.”

Like Johnson, Gavasheli also has a BJJ background. When wrestling became an option it seemed like a good fit.

“I’ve been doing jiu-jitsu for a while and I was always kind of good at it,” Gavasheli said. “They made a girls wrestling team and I thought that was pretty cool so I decided to try it out.”

In just a few months, Gavasheli became good enough to win a state title and earn a unique nickname from here coaches.

“We call her the Goliath spider – the bird-eating spider – because she just swallows her opponents,” said Raritan girls coach Melissa Gardner.

Gardner trains mixed martial arts, including BJJ, so when she first saw Gavasheli in the wrestling room she knew she had a lot of potential.

“I do MMA so I know a large component of it is wrestling, even more so than jiu-jitsu because the transition from feet to ground is wrestling,” Gardner said. “If you can wrestle you control the game. She’s not a traditional wrestler. You look at her form and it gives you heart attacks but she has great hips.”

“About my fifth match or so I started to pick up on the moves and started doing better,” Gavasheli said. “I think that’s when I started to keep getting pins.”

The pins haven’t stopped since. And given that Gavasheli is only a freshman, there could be a lot more accolades in her future.

Finishing second in the state were Raritan’s Mia Lazaurs at 185 pounds and Jackson Memorial’s Kayla Gregory at 127 pounds.

Jackson Memorial’s Brandi Rado lost her first bout but wrestled back to finish third at 147 pounds. Jaguars teammate Madison Pesavage finished fourth at 161.

Finishing fifth were Asbury Park���s Quanizja Legagneur at 100, Manalapan’s Julia Manolas at 105, and Toms River South’s Alexandra Johnson at 118. Placing sixth were Red Bank’s Sheridan Torres at 118, Manalapan’s Angelina Vitola at 127, Garay at 136 and Jackson Memorial’s Jordyn Katz at 185.


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